Could Lexington get a lift from more music?

You hear a lot of talk in Lexington about how encouraging more live music and entertainment venues downtown would be good for the economy, and that’s true.

It would improve Lexington’s quality of life and attract and retain the creative, young workers of the future and the companies that want to hire them.

But what the 275 Lexington leaders on the Commerce Lexington trip to Austin, Texas, are learning this week is that music and entertainment can develop into a significant industry itself, with the right planning and encouragement from local government, banks and other business interests.

And you don’t have to be a Nashville, Los Angeles or Austin to make it happen.

Austin’s music scene goes back to the 1930s, when Kenneth Threadgill hired local bands to play at his Gulf station at night and started selling more beer than gas. Things really took off when the cowboys and hippies collided in the late 1960s, with University of Texas students providing a ready-made audience.

Now, music employs 11,200 people in Austin, generates $11 million in taxes and has an annual economic impact of $616 million. And it’s only a piece of what Austin calls its creative industry sector, which also includes art, film production, digital music and visual media – otherwise known as creating video games.

“Fun is an important part of the economy,” said Jim Butler, a city employee whose job it is to nurture creative businesses. “We take it very seriously.”

Here’s a not-so-small but telling example:

Austin City Limits is one of the most successful and longest-running shows on public television. It showcases both top talent and up-and-comers for a worldwide audience. The show began in 1975, when Austin public television station KLRU convinced Willie Nelson to shoot a pilot to kick off a series of shows featuring Texas musicians.

“We started out just wanting to put a lens on what was happening in Austin at the time,” said Ed Bailey, the show’s vice president for brand development.

When Austin City Limits was still going three years later, producers decided to upgrade the set. They came up with the backdrop that shows Austin’s skyline, which three decades later has become the show’s trademark and has helped make Austin famous.

“It wasn’t part of a business plan to promote Austin,” Bailey said. “It happened because a few creative individuals got together and made a judgment call.”

Then, seven years ago, the show’s producers decided they could use their contacts in the music industry to create a festival as a fundraiser for KLRU. After all, some of the nation’s biggest entertainers had gotten their start on Austin City Limits and returned regularly.

The three-day festival now attracts 130 bands on eight stages and 75,000 fans a day to Austin’s Zilker Park each September. Over the past six years, the festival has generated $100 million in economic impact for Austin.

It was a success story that got several Lexington people thinking: Why not us?

After all, Kentucky has produced some of the nation’s most successful musicians, and there’s a whole genre of music called bluegrass. Lexington already has successful niche festivals, such as Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park and Ichthus near Wilmore.

Lexington has its own home-grown live music success story: Michael Johnathan’s “Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour,” which is beamed each week from the Kentucky Theatre to 491 radio stations worldwide, XM Satellite Radio, a number of public TV stations and streams live online. It will record its 500th show on Sept. 15.

More than a little brand equity there. Great contacts in the music industry.

So, could Lexington boost its economy and image – not to mention the show’s – with a festival?

Austin’s experiences also sparked ideas for Lexington on a smaller scale.

Lexington has some great large venues for shows – Rupp Arena, the Opera House, UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts. But what the city lacks is smaller venues like the Dame, which is looking for a new home since being displaced from Main Street by the proposed CentrePointe development. Those are the venues where musicians get their starts and a local music scene takes root and grows.

The most popular activity for the Lexington visitors Wednesday night was a “pub crawl” to four of the bars in downtown Austin. Many people later wandered over to some live performances at other clubs, such as Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, where Kentuckian Loretta Lynn will be singing June 13.

Wednesday night’s acts were less famous, but still popular.

“There were probably 1,000 people at that one show on a Wednesday night,” Lexington architect Clive Pohl said. “And we passed dozens of clubs on the way there and they were all packed.”

Craig Robertson, a young attorney, dreams of an outdoor concert venue in downtown Lexington, perhaps in the Cox Street parking lot beside Rupp Arena, and lots of small, downtown music clubs. “Where can you go now in Lexington to see the people who aren’t big headliners?” he said.

Vice Mayor Jim Gray appointed a downtown entertainment task force in October 2007 that will soon issue a report and some recommendations. And a few more recommendations are likely to be added when this group returns from Austin.

Council member Linda Gorton said little things Austin is doing to encourage clubs and entertainment venues could easily be done in Lexington – relaxing some ordinances, for example, or providing loading zones on streets for entertainers to use at night.

“We could remove some small obstacles and make it happen,” Gorton said.

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